Recognizing our dog's body language before and during their Decision Points so we can prevent unpleasant or dangerous behaviors.
I walk my dogs off leash a lot. We explore the wilderness and that is one of our very favorite forms of exercise and enrichment. Walking off-leash with my dogs also provides an incomparable requirement for me to observe and understand their body language, anticipate behaviors, and maintain a connection so that they stay safe even with the freedom of being off leash. So even when we're not directly interacting, I think these walks are really key to building relationships.
Off-leash walking or hiking is something that requires both the dog and handler to have a certain skill set. I used to really think about it as a dog training skill set but have recently come to the realization that the skills required for safe off-leash walking lean much more to the human side of the equation. If the human knows what they are doing, the skills required by the dog are really minimal. The human needs to know what their dog finds interesting, what reinforcement they can provide that is more valuable than the typical off-leash experience. They need to know when their dog is paying attention to them and when they are not. The human needs to be able to see when their dog has come to a decision point and act quickly before the dog makes the wrong decision- AND they need to be able to see what is happening in that context to try to predict the next decision point before it even happens. These are the skills that are needed do that a dog can be walked off leash, stay within sight of their owner, and avoid taking off after interesting smells or critters. Yep- these are all things that the owner determines.
So let's talk about what a decision point is and then work back from that. Think about the last time your dog was in a new place. They might be having a grand old time sniffing around, moving at a moderate place, maybe walking next to you or exploring near by. Suddenly, your dog's head comes up and they stop moving. This is a decision point- your dog has noticed something of interest or concern, and is deciding what to do next. Will they chase it? Are they planning to flee? Is an erruption of barking about to occur? Will he check in with you to see what you're thinking? You know your dog and probably know what sorts of behaviors are on the table at this point, in this context.
The mistake that most people make when their dog comes to a decision point is waiting for the dog to make the decision. Letting your dog stare or sniff into the distance while they contemplate their options greatly increases the chance that their decision is going to be one that doesn't involve you. The longer they stand there weighing their options, fixating on the source of their interest, the more interested in it they become, and the more the connection between you and your dog starts to evaporate. (Alternately, for some dogs, when they are fixating on something, they may be becoming more fearful! Either way- the added attention is not ideal). When you do see that decision point pause- the sooner that you provide instruction, the more likely it is that your dog is still connected to you and is going to follow your suggestions because he hasn't had the full chance to weigh out the pros and cons. Don't give him too much time to fixate and think about thing, or to let his adrenaline kick in and shut his brain off!
Vanilla smells something off the trail- head up, ears forward, mouth partly closed- and stopped when she is usually moving. At this point I had better give her instruction or she's going to make her own decision about whether to pursue the smell or not.
That pause in the action that I'm calling the decision point usually gets shorter and shorter once the dog has had a chance to rehearse making his own decisions in that particular context, especially if he is getting reinforced by the decision he makes. Remember that reinforcement isn't necessarily just whatever cookie you have in your pocket -it's anything that the dog finds enjoyable enough that it motivates him to make the same decision again in the future. Chasing a deer could be very reinforcing! Eating some old animal turd off the trail could be reinforcing. Barking and 'scaring off' some other person or critter could be reinforcing. The problem is that those are usually reinforcing behaviors you'd rather see less often, not more often. Because the timing of the decision point reduces, you get less of a chance to give your dog instructions- it becomes a bit of a vicious cycle. Dog smells deer and immediately takes off, dang it! He gets the fun of the chase, and you didn't even have a chance to call him or anything! Next time, he might not only have a smaller decision point pause, he might be going out actively looking for deer scent in anticipation of the chase!
Decision point: Should I jump in and chase those ducks across the pond? hmmm....
So- what can you do about this? Learn to recognize your dog's body language during their decision point- and immediately make the decision for them. Call your dog and reward them heavily at that point, even if they only had to move a few feet towards you, because you know the alternative was potentially something very reinforcing and beyond your control. Your dog won't come when you call him? Go get him, put the leash on, and reinforce anything he can do that isn't fixating on the point of interest. Don't let him stare off indefinitely, building his pros/cons list and getting wound up. Your goal here is that when your dog does come to a decision point, he has a strong history of getting instructions from you and responding quickly. Ideally- if he begins to get an automatic response- a shortened decision point- it's because he's quickly deciding to check in with you instead of investigating whatever prompted the decision. This is an entirely attainable goal and it comes from teaching your dog that when there is a question in his mind about what to do, you will always instruct him quickly, and pay well for a good response. When that history gets strong enough, he'll start saying 'hey human, what should I do here?' on his own! And you'll pay the heck out of that so it is reinforced and happens again.
You're going to see decision points in your dog's body language in other scenarios too. Does your dog pace back and forth in the kitchen right before they counter surf? That pacing is your dog's decision point- trying to decide if it is worth it, or perhaps how to perform the logistics of thieving something tasty that is up there. The more reinforcement your dog gets for counter surfing, the less thought he has to put into this decision the next time. Some dogs just walk in the room and put there feet up there- they have already figured out it's worth it and don't even have to ponder, they just act- but if your dog is still showing signs that they are thinking about it- intervene then! Don't wait for the wrong decision. Give them something better to do- go lay on your mat, come here and get a cookie, sit, etc.
The next thing is to consider what the specific context is when your dog is coming to these decision points, and see if you can recognize them in advance. For example, if I see a deer before my dog does, I already know that the moment my dog sees or smells it, they are going to be making a decision on if they should chase it or not. I want to act right immediately and not wait for the visible decision point- because the risk of the dog making the wrong decision is high, and potentially very dangerous. Chasing deer might be fun, but it might get him stomped, or lost miles away, or lead him across a highway where he gets killed by a passing vehicle. It's not worth the risk, so I'm making my decision before the dog gets a chance to.
There might be less obvious context clues that your dog is about to reach a decision point. For one of my dogs, she can be pleasantly meandering around in the forest nearby, and suddenly, her head will raise up, and she starts to prance. I know that she has caught the smell of something she finds very interesting and I need to call her right at that moment. If I call her, reward her, and release her again, she can usually go back to a settled happy hiking mode- if not, I keep repeating until she does or she gets leashed. If I wait too long to intervene and let her keep working that exciting smell, she will figure out where that interesting smell is coming from, and be gone! Her decision point is no longer a healthy pause, she just moves into immediate action so I need to watch for those clues and act early. Once she is on a hot trail, it's too late- her decision is made and she's invested in it! The 'chase' is reinforcing her for running off, even if she never comes across the actual animal or whatever she is searching for.
A factor in learning to recognize and act during (or before!) your dog's decision points is that you need to actually be able to see your dog. I think it is a very common mistake for people who do allow their dog off leash, to give them free-reign of wherever they want to go. Even if you feel like it is a super safe area, watching the dog's body language is key and when your dog is off-leash, it's your responsibility to know what they are doing and where they are. There is no way to know that a new hazard hasn't appeared- or maybe not even a hazard. What if there is just a stroller-pushing mom up ahead on the trail? What if someone smashed a bottle? If you can see your dog, and his body language, you're going to be able to have a much better chance of preventing any sort of problem ranging from unwanted interactions to injuries.
It's an age-old dog training rule that "Distance Erodes Contol" which means that the further a dog is away from you, the more unlikely they are to listen to your instruction so- keeping your dog at a reasonable proximity will also help improve your odds that your dog will be able to hear and respond to your cues when you provide them. If your location is such that you are hiking in the wide open hills or prairies, consider that you need to keep your dog within this functional bubble of responding, even if you could see him at a much further distance. This is something that you train by interrupting your dog, calling them, and heavily reinforcing, anytime they get to the imaginary edge of your bubble. For me and my dogs, that is about 40 yards or less, depending on the visibility. I'm watching their body language (head up, change of pace, rapid upright tailwagging) for signs that they are smelling something exciting and may even want to keep them closer at those points. Being excited erodes control, too!
In dog training we often talk about preventing unwanted behaviors from becoming a habit. In an off-leash context, most people translate that to mean 'don't let your dog off-leash until they have a good recall'. And that is definitely one way to prevent problems from some poor decisions, but it doesn't prevent all of them. Sometimes, keeping your dog on-leash actually prevents you from developing the handler skills you need to be able to see the decision points and respond to them. It might prevent you from really building that strong connection and attention that you need for each other. If your dog is on leash, are you watching them as closely as you would if they were off leash? Is the dog paying attention to you or dragging you and lunging at things? If there is a lack of connection, that will lead to problems once you do finally take off the leash, even if your dog has a super recall in normal circumstances.
Instead of just living a leashed life forever, practice off-leash in short doses, in a safe area. You don't have to commit to going off-leash for a full walk. Walk your dog on leash until they are a little less animated, take the leash off for two minutes while you walk on the most boring part of the trail- put it back on and finish your hike. What did you see in your dog's body language when they were off-leash? Did you feel like your dog was still paying attention to you? Were you paying attention to them? Did you get a chance to reward your dog for checking in or were you able to call your dog during any decision points?
If you are lucky enough to be starting with a new puppy, aim for off-leash walks at a young age. Pick a safe area, free from hazards and boisterous adult off-leash dogs, where you can let your puppy off leash while walking on a visible path. Your motion and the path provides a sense of direction so that your puppy never feels like they have to go searching for entertainment- you are going somewhere, together. That is the mission. Reward your puppy everytime he checks in with you. It will be a lot at first, and that is the point- a baby puppy is naturally wired to need you, and you can use that to build a strong reinforcement history before he gets to the age where he no longer feels that need. You might be able to feed a full meal's worth of food during a single walk, just for checking in- what a great investment in your puppy that is!
On these puppy walks, pay attention to what your puppy finds interesting. Don't let him fixate on things that will lead to bad decisions- such as staring at other dogs or a squirrel in a tree. Recognize those early decision points where maybe he pauses to consider something and call him quickly. Teach him the best automatic response is coming to you and avoid letting him experience reinforcement that is going to make life harder for both of you later on!
Starting our puppies off early with off leash walks since they naturally do not want to stray too far at this age, already look up to humans for guidance, and even at this age, you can see decision points where there is an opportunity to ensure the puppy makes the choice that you want them to make and are very well paid for it!